Thursday, February 6, 2014

A Book

Wiley (#12 publisher in the world) contacted me a few months book, to explore my interest in writing a book on patterns in big data. Their idea for the book, came from my post here. Going through the planning process for the project was eye-opening. In brief, there are no shortcuts in writing a book. Based on a message I received this week, it seems that Wiley is no longer interested in the project. The good news is that I have other interested publishers. However, this reprieve has made me stop and consider if I should really go forward this. I've decided to post the opening of the Prologue here, along with a brief outline. I welcome hearing from anyone, if this topic sounds interesting to you (ie would you want to see a book on this?)...Thanks

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Prologue

George Dantzig sat in his dorm room, contemplating the next 24 hours and what it would mean for his future. He came to The University of California, Berkeley with many aspirations, but as often happens, life got in the way and his best laid plans turned into dreams for another day. As he gazed over the building immediately in the foreground, he could see Sather Tower on Berkeley’s campus, known for resembling Campanile di San Marco in Venice. George reassured himself that one of his major goals was still in his grasp; he could still earn a position on the faculty, providing an opportunity to teach the next group of eager students.

It was 3pm in the afternoon and George had until 8am the next morning to prepare for what would become his defining exam at Berkeley: if he were to pass, his spot on the faculty was virtually guaranteed. Anything less than his best, and his future would be once again uncertain. This was the kind of motivator that got him to re-open the books and apply himself through the night. The last time George looked up from his book he saw 3 AM on the clock and decided he should get some rest.

As the sunrise slowly emanated around his room, George opened one eye and then the other, immediately wondering why he had not heard his alarm yet. He figured it must be an exceptionally clear day, for that type of light to be coming through his eyelids, before the 7:15am alarm that he had set. Suddenly, George felt like something was not right, sat straight up in bed, grabbed his glasses and looked at the clock: 8:30am. The exam had started 30 minutes ago, as George quickly pulled on his pants and made a dash for the door.

When George arrived at the exam hall, the surprise on his Professor’s face was noticeable, as he had concluded that George must be in the hospital or perhaps even dead, to have not been at the exam hall promptly. George, in a rushed voice, explained the situation, as his professor handed him the exam. He also noted, “George, there are 2 additional problems that I have written on the board, once you complete the questions on the exam paper.”

George, without any minutes to waste, sat in the front row and quickly started working through the questions. The exam was set for 3 hours, so when George arrived at 8:50am, many of the students were nearly half way through with the questions. 2 hours later, as the clock approached 11am, George finished the last question in the paper exam and shifted his attention to the 2 questions on the board. As 11am came, George was the only student left in the hall and it was clear that he would not even have a chance to explore the 2 questions on the board. He sheepishly walked up to his professor, re-explained the situation, and apologized that he did not get to the questions on the board. In an unexpected act his professor offered to let George have until midnight to try to complete the questions on the board, and George excitedly ran back to his dorm room.

It was now 3 PM, 24 hours since he reflected on his future in his dorm room. George had made progress on 1 of the questions and decided to give up on the other. He spent the next 8 hours grinding on question #1, felt confident that he had cornered the problem, and set out across campus to turn in his single answer. His disappointment was obvious in his posture; while he felt a great sense of accomplishment in solving #1, he knew that 1 for 2 would likely not make the cut. George slid the paper under his Professors door, grabbed a small bite at the campus cafeteria and collapsed into his bed at 1am.

George was awakened by the shrill sound of his phone at 7am, and heard his Professor on the line, “George, I can’t believe it. You actually solved 1 of the equations on the board. This is truly a historic day.” George confused by what he was hearing, asked his professor to explain why 1 out of 2 was so historic. His professor replied, “George, when I handed out the test, I told the class that I had written 2 unsolvable equations on the board. I expected anyone with extra time to play around with them, but they weren’t actually part of the test. You accomplished something that the rest of us KNEW was impossible!”.

It’s amazing what we can accomplish, when we are not encumbered by what we believe is possible. It turns out that George had solved an algorithm around linear programming, which eventually became simplex algorithm, the heart of Microsoft Excel’s SOLVER function. If George had been in the class, when his Professor said it was unsolvable, he would have never accomplished this feat. He was not limited by what the world felt was possible.

The Big Data Revolution is about accomplishing feats with data, that no one has ever believed is possible. It starts with a mindset and a temporary suspension of disbelief. If we aren’t encumbered by what others believe is possible, then anything is possible. This Revolution is about finding your POSSIBLE.

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From this point, the book would go into depth on 5 stories, for different industries, on the impact of data. From these stories, I would harvest a set of Patterns, that I think are applicable across all industries. The stories are:

1) Transforming Farms with Data
2) Reinventing Customer Service with Data
3) Personalized Marketing in Retail (Selling to a Customer of One)
4) Real-time Insurance Underwriting (Pay as you Drive)
5) Why Doctors Will Have Math Degrees in 2020

I welcome any feedback in email or in the comment section below.

2 comments:

  1. That's a great story. I've never heard it before. I like your line about temporary suspension of disbelief. I was talking to a big data statistician who said something very similar. Often we don't even know all the questions we need to ask because we don't know what's possible right now with big data. Of course I'd love the book you described.

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  2. I have never heard this story and can appreciate the impact that "filters" have on our beliefs and subsequent behavior. What I like best about your proposed chapters are the story lines for providing potentially provocative meetings with clients. Anything I can do to stand out from the pack of sales people trying to get time with decision makers at my customers is well worth my time to invest.

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